A chemical technique that generated tremendous excitement in the mid-1980s--though the hoopla has since faded somewhat in the United States--may be undergoing a renaissance in the international arena.

The technique, metal atom vapor chemistry, generates single atoms of metal, which behave quite differently from their more familiar bulk metal forms--and reacting these metal atoms may someday generate valuable new materials. Before that can happen, however, problems in adapting the process to a production scale must be resolved. Researchers in the former Soviet Union and in other countries have recently been exploring the technology's potential.

Despite the fact that vaporizing metal atoms is messy and time- consuming, a number of U.S. companies are working with the method as well. Some chemists and materials scientists are using it to produce catalysts for difficult chemical reactions and synthesize new compounds. Other scientists are looking at the technique as a way to produce novel...

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